DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - West Africa may lose up to $15 billion (10 billion pounds) over the next three years due to the impact of the Ebola outbreak on trade, investment and tourism, according to a report by the United Nations.
The world's deadliest Ebola epidemic has killed almost 10,000 people in the three most affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, deepening poverty in one of the least developed parts of the world.
"The consequences of Ebola are vast," said Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, Africa director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
"Stigma and risk aversion have caused considerable amounts of damage, shutting down borders and indirectly affecting the economies of a large number of countries in the sub-region."
In the best-case scenario, the report said the mineral-rich region may lose on average $3.6 billion per year for the next three years before the economies start to recover.
The worst-case scenario predicts losses of up to $4.9 billion per year over three years, with the bulk of the impact felt by the three worst affected countries, said the report released on Thursday by the United Nations Development Group, a consortium of U.N. agencies.
Women, rural communities and the poor who make a living in informal trade are likely to be hit the hardest, said Ayodele Odusola, chief economist for UNDP Africa.
"If you look at Guinea, almost 85 percent of the potato trade with Sierra Leone is done by women, but because of the border closure, this activity was completely paralysed," Odusola told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from New York.
"In Liberia (the impact of Ebola) crudely translates to families not being able to put any food on the table for a minimum of 15 days every year for the next three years," said Odusola, who supervised the report.
The poverty rate - the proportion of people living below the poverty line of $1.25 a day - could increase by up to 22 percent in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in 2016, the report said.
Even countries that have reported few or zero Ebola cases, such as Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Mali, have been hit by the crisis. In Ivory Coast, the poverty rate could rise by 2.7 percent in 2016.
Beyond the worst affected countries, estimates of the economic impact of Ebola have varied wildly. In January, the World Bank estimated the impact on African economies at $500 million, just a fraction of the more than $25 billion in losses first expected.
Odusola said making accurate economic models in a region so dependent on informal, undocumented trade is difficult.
"If you go to any West African border town you can see that the crossings are buzzing with economic activity, but it's very hard to measure how much," said Odusola. "This is a conservative estimate from official figures."
The three countries have set a 60-day target to eliminate Ebola by mid-April, but only Liberia has managed to report zero Ebola cases over the last week.
Reporting by Misha Hussain; Editing by Ros Russell